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In St Paul's kitchen, cooking up kindness

Cedar Rapids church will serve hundreds on Christmas Eve

Laurie Niles of Cedar Rapids assembles frozen hash brown patties Wednesday on a baking sheet at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids. She has been cooking for her community for years, coordinating meal planning for Neighborhood Meals and at Wilson Middle School, among others. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Laurie Niles of Cedar Rapids assembles frozen hash brown patties Wednesday on a baking sheet at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids. She has been cooking for her community for years, coordinating meal planning for Neighborhood Meals and at Wilson Middle School, among others. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Wearing a red “Let it Snow” apron and sparkly green earrings shaped like Christmas bows, Laurie Niles greeted church volunteers who arrived last week at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church to help serve a community meal.

She already had cooked pounds of sausage links and scrambled heaping piles of eggs, which stayed warm in a slow cooker as she baked trays of hash browns. Sheets of pancakes waited nearby to be warmed in the oven.

The theme was breakfast for dinner, and this meal, which Niles oversees each Wednesday night at the church, is just one part of her effort to help the church feed the neighborhood.

On Christmas Eve, St. Paul’s will open its doors for its annual free holiday dinner. From noon to 2 p.m. Monday, volunteers anticipate serving up to 500 hot meals, with a side of Christmas fellowship. Most will be served in the church, but a legion of volunteers also will fan out across Cedar Rapids to deliver meals to those unable to leave home. A sister church, St. Mark’s United Methodist, will serve a meal on Christmas Day.

“Dignity — all of this meal is about that,” said St. Paul’s Associate Pastor Jonathan Heifner. “It’s about dignity, community, the joy and laughter that’s shared when we get around a table together.”

More volunteers will prep for the Christmas Eve dinner, showing up in advance to peel hundreds of potatoes and do other duties. When Niles arrives Monday morning, she’ll take on tasks like making gravy and overseeing the roasting of 160 pounds of turkey.

“I can’t do this without all the volunteers,” she said.

The Wilson Middle School cafeteria manager has worked for the Cedar Rapids Community School District for 19 years, and at Wilson for about nine.

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About five years, her boss emailed all the school kitchen employees about a job with Neighborhood Meals, and Niles applied.

Housed at St. Paul’s, Neighborhood Meals is a partnership between six neighborhood churches to feed families lunch during the summer. The program, which is 25 years old, feeds between 90 and 175 people daily.

Niles likes that the meals are served with no questions asked to both adults and children. She pointed out that although federally funded summer meal programs have become more common to help feed kids who aren’t in school, it’s harder to find a place the whole family can eat.

“I’m very, very proud of what the churches do down here for all,” she said. “I laugh and say, that (working at the school) is my real job, and working here is my passion.”

Niles thrives on staying busy. Before joining the school district, she worked at the Whirlpool factory in Amana for 10 years. She quit when her daughter was in kindergarten, but that didn’t last.

“I’m not very good at staying home,” she said.

She saw a flyer advertising positions for lunch ladies and applied, working at Pierce Elementary School at the same time her daughter attended the school. The job allowed her to be home when her daughter was and left time for activities like leading her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop.

Plus, she discovered she really enjoyed it. It transformed a skill she’d taken for granted.

“I just like to cook. I’ve always cooked,” she said. “At home, I still make all my noodles from scratch, roll them out on the counter.”

She plans to retire from the school district in the next few years, but said she’ll keep cooking at the church.

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She started cooking the Wednesday nights meals at the church this year, and this will be her second year cooking the Christmas Eve dinner.

She and her husband have talked about wintering somewhere warm, but they don’t plan to ever leave Cedar Rapids completely.

“This is home,” she said. “I can’t move.”

She currently is the Neighborhood Meals only paid staff, though she said she tried to give her wages back last year when the program was struggling for money. Her offer was declined.

She grew up on the southeast side, just behind the Jane Boyd Community House in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood. A lifelong Cedar Rapids resident, she said it was important to her to give back to the place that raised her.

“I do what I do here at the church for the community,” she said.

Planning is vital, she said, and her motto is to always have a backup — an additional dish on standby she can quickly whip up to feed dozens of people on short notice.

It has served her well cooking for both junior high school preteens and at community meals.

“You have to be flexible, and to work with what we have,” she said. “I’m always trying to save money, stretch our dollars.”

At Neighborhood Meals, that often means working donated food into the menu. She recalled spending hours slicing sweet corn off hundreds of donated ears. It was important to slice the corn off the cob because some guests have trouble chewing, she said.

“I just want to make sure everybody gets a good meal,” she said.

She’s gotten to know many of the regular summer patrons by name, including a number of students she also serves at school.

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“I think there’s a sense that you are a friend to people who come to eat here,” Heifner told her.

She acknowledged that with a smile and a shrug.

“How could I say no to such an important way to help our community during the holiday season?” she said. “I’m confidant in saying cooking at St. Paul’s is a win-win for myself and the church.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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